Kitagawa Utamaro is one of the most famous ukiyo-e artists of all time. Utamaro became known for his delicate and elegant renditions of the female figure. His characters were usually depicted in private spaces, mostly women performing activities that were attributed to their gender: doing their hair or makeup, playing instruments, and performing other household activities. The artist also concluded a large number of nature studies, with an emphasis on insects. Utamaro was one of the main Japanese influences upon avant-garde Impressionist artists, and his work was present in the collections of modern masters like Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas.
Very little is known about Utamaro's early life. He was born circa 1753 as Kitagawa Ichitaro, and there are speculations about which city he was born at, with many hypotheses like Edo, Kyoto, Osaka, and even small villages. His parents' names are unknown, although some scholars suggest that his father was the artist Toriyama Sekien. What is known is that Sekien was his tutor and wrote about young Utamaro playing in his garden since he lived in Sekien's house while growing up. They were close until Sekien's death in 1788. Son or not, Sekien described him as a bright pupil and very devoted to art.
Although being trained in the Kano School of Japanese painting, which was aimed at the upper-class, Sekien became a ukiyo-e practitioner and mentor, focusing his art towards more simple townspeople in Edo. Ukiyo-e is a traditional wood printing technique that gives a delicate and painterly quality to the artwork, many times similar to a watercolor and ink painting. His pupils included haiku poets as well as ukiyo-e artists, such as Eishosai Choki, who was one of his noteworthy students. No one had the same fame as Utamaro, though.
Utamaro's first published work was possibly an illustration of a poetry anthology published in 1770. For almost the entire decade, Utamaro, under the name of Kitagawa Toyoaki, worked mainly on book illustrations for popular literature and often created portraits for kabuki actors called yakusha-e.
The Japanese artist's first major work was in 1775 when he was in his early twenties, and it was a cover for a kabuki playbook. After this commission, he got a good amount of works in the yakusha-e genre. As usual, the artist also made general design work for theater companies, such as programs. During this decade, he worked using popular literature as a source for his imagery.
In 1782, Utamaro was chosen by Tsutaya Juzaburo, the young and ambitious publisher, often regarded as the most important and prolific ukiyo-e publishers of the Edo period, to work together as his publisher. They lived together for five years. Shortly after, Kitagawa hosted a lavish banquet when he announced the use of his new artistic name: Utamaro. On this occasion, as it was common during that period, the artist handed every guest a print made for the event. The image depicted him bowing to his guests. During this period, the artist started the production of nude figures and women, for which he became famous.
Around 1791, Utamaro decided to stop designing prints for books and concentrate on making portraits of women, opposing other ukiyo-e artists who favored them in a group. This was the beginning of the work for which he is known today. Since Utamaro was already recognized during this time, he decided in 1793 to end his arrangement with Juzaburo, although they remained friends.
This allowed Utamaro to focus further on his portraits, executing a large number of his well-known artworks, all depicting women of the Yoshiwara district. Over the years, Utamaro also depicted several other themes, such as different animals, insects, nature studies, as well as shunga, the Japanese art of erotica.
In 1790, regulation got stricter around the creation of prints. A censor had to first review the sketches, giving it a seal of approval. Harsh punishments could be implemented against infractors. Later, the Japanese painter and printmaker had to face penalties because of his depiction of samurais. Tsutaya Juzaburo died in 1797, which struck Utamaro hard, making him very upset by the loss of his supporter and life-long friend. Some scholars suggest that his grief was such that his artwork never again reached its previously achieved heights.
In 1804 Utamaro was censored and arrested because some of the prints he produced depicted important samurais, authorities, and historical figures, which was prohibited. The artwork called Ehon Taikoki was an epic and detailed portrayal of the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a shogun. The artist was imprisoned along with five other printmakers. They were cuffed for fifty days, and their publishers had to pay hefty fines.
Utamaro's images were considered the most offensive among the group. The artist depicted political authorities gazing at Korean dancers at a party and Hideyoshi along with five concubines during a party. All of them were named in the image. This episode made Utamaro sink even further into his depression, fully ashamed. Despite his poor health, he continued to produce until his death.
Kitagawa Utamaro died in October 21, 1806.
Utamaro had many pupils, who took names such as Hidemaro and Takemaro. The most successful of them was Tsukimaro. After the artist's death, one of his pupils, Koikawa Shuncho, married his widow. He kept producing prints in the style of Utamaro and even used his name, which causes confusion until today. It was only after 180 that Shuncho changed his signature to Kitagawa Tetsugoro.